Chris Stevens on Alice for the iPad, Book Apps, and Toronto: a Q & A

TRB: Released in the spring of 2010, Alice for the iPad became a huge, Oprah-featured hit that is credited with convincing reading publics of how book apps could be even more fun and engaging than paper books. How many times has Alice been downloaded by now? Were you surprised by its reception? How have traditional book publishers and book reviewers reacted to it?

CS: Alice is installed on over 500,000 iPads. The reception was a surprise, especially since most of the design work was done out of my bedroom in London. The initial reaction from traditional book publishers was one of awe and confusion. Alice was only out a few days before I found myself in a boardroom at HarperCollins explaining to a bunch of people in suits how we’d managed to beat them to the top of the book charts on the iPad. For a while they thought I had the key to the future of publishing—they thought that if they could extract the secret to what made Alice a success, they could revitalize the market. The excitement surrounding the iPad led a lot of publishers to suspect that Apple might be able to bolster the industry, but—just as it always is—great content, not technology makes a popular app. I told them what I did, but they didn’t seem to get it.

Book reviewers were generally positive about Alice, although The New York Times wrote a scathing piece about how the massive popularity of Alice for the iPad would lead to the extinction of the careful-reader, reducing our attention spans and quiet engagement with literature. The NYT wrote of Alice: “The question is what will become of the readers we’ve been—quiet, thoughtful, patient, abstracted—in a world where interactive can be too tempting to ignore.”

But they forgot to actually put a question mark at the end of that question, so perhaps all hope of “thoughtful” readers is already lost – for the NYT at least.

TRB: You’ve been a journalist, a writer for CNET, and a graphic designer—a perfect background for making book apps—but where did the Alice app idea itself come from? Eureka moment or series of conversations?

Chris Stevens

CS: Alice was the result of a lot of lucky events. Only they didn’t seem lucky at the time. First, I lost my job. I was fired from The Times newspaper in London by an editor who claimed that they had been overpaying me by 50%. To deliver this news he put his foot on my desk, which I stared at for a very long time in confusion.He then turned and left in a hurry—presumably to hack a few phones. A friend of mine also lost his job around the same time and we teamed up. I took care of the graphics and design, and my friend took care of the programming. We launched a couple of relatively unknown apps, but I became interested in the idea of applying simulated physics to objects in the original Sir John Tenniel-illustrated edition of Alice in Wonderland. The result was a kind of digital pop-up book. The book was out of copyright, therefore in the public domain—another appealing aspect.
I had no idea that it would become a success on this scale, but I remember being very engrossed in the design process. It took about 3 months of solid work to complete—15 hour days.

TRB: Tell us about the process of making Alice into an app. What aspects of the original book were more or less conducive to being made interactive?

John Tenniel's illustration of Lewis Carroll's Alice

CS: The original Sir John Tenniel illustrations were carved out of wood block before being printed onto the page—as a fortunate result of that, they have a thick outlined style to them. Each page of the original Lewis Carroll book jumped out at me and elements seemed to beg to spring to life. It was supernatural really; this imperative to create movement in the pages. Almost as if Tenniel somehow anticipated me using Photoshop and an iPad to adapt his work over 100 years later.

TRB: Besides Alice, what are some of your favourite book apps? Any lesser known app publishers you think TRB readers should check out?

CS: I’m desperate for the book industry to produce some work that blows me away, but for now there’s a few Alice clones and not much else. I can see exactly why this is happening. The major publishers have completely abdicated responsibility for producing the digital versions of their catalogues: it’s all handed over to amateurs. You see it throughout the industry. From the typographical horror of most eBooks, through to the lacklustre iPad titles being produced. The big problem is that most publishers don’t care about the iPad or eBooks very much, whether this is an aesthetic rejection based on the publisher’s historical reverence for the printed page, or a reflection of the relatively small profits to be made on the iPad so far, it’s hard to know.

What’s happening at the moment is that most publishers are handing their major titles over to app developers who are ruining these titles with rushed, unprofessional layout and design. There is this weird situation where programmers are suddenly being given free rein to design books. We watch as publishers like Random House outsource the design of cherished titles to programmers who—despite their excellence at programming—are not designers. The complete lack of care and attention paid to the production of digital books is genuinely mystifying.

Having said that, the McSweeney’s app is pretty inspiring at times. The new Chris Ware book graphic story inside that McSweeney’s app is particularly great—though very short. Nursery Rhymes with Storytime is great and the new ustwo app Papercut is interesting. Aside from that, nothing has jumped out at me yet.

TRB: What do you like to read on a day-to-day basis? Would you ever make a book app out of a novel or work of nonfiction, or are you interested in sticking to illustrated work?

CS: Generally I enjoy modern fiction: Michel Houellebecq and Milan Kundera stand out for me. I’m also a big fan of Yevgeny Zamyatin—a Russian sci-fi writer from the 20s who is like Orwell, but much more disturbing and brilliant—his best book is We. I’ve also just finished The Brain that Changes Itself which is a fascinating non-fiction book about neuroplasticity. I was reading it in the cafe of the Drake Hotel the other day and one of the staff came over to explain that the author was her family doctor. Wonderful.

At the moment, making books for the iPad remains a risky business. I was lucky enough to have such a huge success with Alice that it has allowed me to produce other books that have seen only moderate success, like Alice in New York—which takes the illustrations from Alice Through The Looking Glass and re-situates them in New York City. This was a huge project, a real labour of love, and has barely recouped its investment. Bizarrely, I am now considering heading the other way, and I’m working on a traditional paperback novel.

TRB: Tell us about your new book.

CS: Alongside Alice for the iPad and Alice in New York, I’ve also written two non-fiction books. The latest is called Appillionaires and it tells the stories of those small teams that have made millions of dollars on the App Store. It’s a rags-to-riches multi-biography of many different people, including a submarine captain who made a small fortune with an iPhone game called Stickwars, two brothers who have sold over 10 million copies of Doodle Jump and the family who made the immensely popular Angry Birds game. Their stories are bizarre and inspiring.

TRB: What brings you to Toronto? We hear you like this city better than anywhere else.Why? (We’re chuffed—and also concur.) You mentioned the recently released Alice in New York. Any chance she’ll be coming to Toronto?

CS: I visited Toronto last year to give a talk about the future of the book and fell completely in love with the city. It has a creative energy that propels me. I’ve had the good fortune to run into so many fantastic and intriguing people here, including Professor Robert K. Logan from the University of Toronto. I’m planning to co-author a title with him called Alice in the Atom—which teaches kids key ideas in physics using the Alice in Wonderland characters.

As for Alice coming to Toronto, I think she’d like it here. Professor Logan features as a character in the new book, and he lives in Toronto, so there will be a Torontonian edge to the next Alice book.

Alice for the iPad is available in the App Store.


5 responses to “Chris Stevens on Alice for the iPad, Book Apps, and Toronto: a Q & A”

  1. As Apple developers working with publishers, we have also been witness to this hesitancy from publishers to embrace the ebook platform. There is undoubtedly a limited appreciation for the potential of rich media ebooks.

    But some publishers also have good reason for being cautious. Apple do not treat publishers as equal, and do use the app review process and pricing to control the marketplace. Small indy developers are more likely to be published than large publishers outside Apple’s preferred partners. One only needs to study the shareholdings of Apple to see where their preferential alliances lie.

    In Dec 2011, the European Commission opened an antitrust investigation against Apple on the grounds that illegal activity in its treatment of ebook publishers may lead to or include restricting competition in the EU. This investigation is based on evidence acquired from publisher offices raided by the commission in May.

    There is also an economic equation at play. Apple take a fairly hefty slice of the revenue pie while stacking all the costs on the publisher. Recently they have been forcing publishers into an IAP model where even the content has to be hosted at the publisher’s expense.

    Apple’s iPad and its distribution platform is revolutionary and visionary. It is still the best platform around by a long measure. But perhaps rich content ebooks will not become the media of choice for publishers and the community until it is distributed through a more open platform such as HTML5.

  2. As a programmer – and a tad of a designer too, I doubt that, in general, “programmers are suddenly being given free reign to design books”. I find it more likely that programmers are suddenly ordered to design books, often without getting reasonable time, training, tools or even typefaces.

  3. “The complete lack of care and attention paid to the production of digital books is genuinely mystifying.”

    Presumably the level of care is entirely down to the per-book price the publishers are willing to pay for the conversion of eBooks.

    In my recent experience, I’ve seen eBook conversion companies being supplied only with PDF as an _input_ format for the conversion, rather than something more structured (even Word, a horror, would be better) and even when that more structured source was available from the author. Exactly how good these publishing houses expect the resulting conversion to be is a mystery.

    Even with a low per-book conversion fee, the publishers could choose to be more involved in the final approval of eBooks and in supplying appropriate inputs. That they are not is more indicative of the problem at hand than any lazy and unfortunate distinction drawn between programmers and designers.